Gwich’in elders long ago predicted that a day would come when the world would warm, and things would not be the same with the animals. That time is now.
My tribe, the Gwich’in of northeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada, are the northernmost Indian nation on the American continent. Our 8,000 tribal members live in fifteen small villages dotted across a huge area of subarctic tundra and forest scattered with thousands of lakes and scores of rivers. Our home is also home to the Porcupine River Caribou Herd. For as long as anyone can remember, we have survived by hunting caribou. Despite the introduction of rifles, Christianity, a few snowmobiles and some electricity, we still make our living from subsistence hunting.
ow climate change has put our lives and livelihoods in immediate danger: The lakes, the rivers, the waterfowl and, most of all, the caribou that we depend on are under threat.
Because nature is the fabric of our lives, we cannot really separate “the climate” from our human selves. So when we talk about the environment and especially about the decline of caribou, we are talking about who we are and who we want to continue to be. It is a question of our very survival as a people.
ot far from Gwich’in land is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. Potential oil and gas development there would further stress the caribou and fuel more greenhouse gas emissions, which would cause even more, very bad changes down the line. That is why we oppose plans to drill for oil there.
The biggest impact from climate change that we have seen recently has been two immense forest fires that laid waste millions of acres–more than 6 million acres in 2004 and 4 million acres in 2005. When the giant fires of the Yukon Flats started in the summer of 2004, the marten were driven up to Arctic Village, north of their natural territories. Gwich’in, who trap the marten, are finding them scarce, and that means loss of fur for clothing and cash income from the sale of marten pelts.
We are even seeing a decline in snowfall to the point that it is making travel by sled and snowmobile difficult. Warmer weather means that creeks are taking longer to freeze, and when they do the ice is often too thin to hold heavy loads. This means that getting firewood in the early winter is becoming very difficult and dangerous.
Worst of all are the problems faced by the massive Porcupine River Caribou Herd. We rely on these animals for much of our food; their numbers used to be 178,000, but they have dropped to 129,000 in a mere decade. Calf mortality has risen because of unstable environmental conditions. In 2000 and 2001 the Porcupine River thawed early. This was extremely serious, because it forced the pregnant cows to give birth south of the river rather than in their normal birthing grounds and summer pastures.
But the caribou’s instinct to go north to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is so strong that the cows then persisted in crossing the rushing water. Thousands of calves drowned as a result. A tragedy in itself, this also threatens our lives and culture.